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The Planetary Eco-System

In order for the eco-system to function and support life, including humans, it needs to have access to a range of resources, including clean air, clean water, functioning food chains, energy and an equitable climate. Living, as so much of humanity does, in urban surroundings, cocooned in an artificial environment, it is difficult for many of us to realize that we are as dependent on our planet’s ecosystem as any wild animal, the condors of the high Andes or the tigers of Siberia, all species, including homo sapiens, live subject to the same rules. The reindeer of St Matthews Island ultimately pushed the boundaries of their limited eco-system to its boundaries, humanity cannot afford to make the same mistakes on a planetary level.

The problems of climate change are ultimately about making dangerous changes to the Earth’s eco-system, which will endanger the well-being, and even the survival, of our species. No matter what happens, the Earth herself will survive, as will some other species, humanity may not.

While the study of eco-systems has developed significantly in recent years, it took the publication of James Lovelock’s “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth”[1] in 1979 to bring the idea of the Earth as a common and unified system to the attention of the wider public. Lovelock followed his original book with a number of subsequent works, which highlighted the functioning of the “Gaia” system and the increasing threats that Earth faces from human actions. As Lovelock wrote, “The Gaia hypothesis … supposed that the atmosphere, the oceans, the climate, and the crust of the Earth are regulated at a state comfortable for life because of the behaviour of living organisms.” Lovelock envisaged an automatic feedback process which keeps temperature, oxidation state, acidity, and certain aspects of the rocks and water constant at any time, that is homeostasis. As he said, “Life and its environment are so closely coupled that evolution concerns Gaia, not the organisms or the environment taken separately.”[2]

What is important to understand is that we live on a planet which is a massively connected system, where threats to rainforests, to tropical climate systems, to the Athabasca River, and to the permafrost in Siberia and Canada, all have the potential to have profound systemic consequences. In the words of John Donne – “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” In the same way that a gated community will not protect individuals from the consequences of social breakdown, you cannot ultimately protect yourself and your family from the consequences of problems in the planetary eco-system. As Diamond said of the Norse Greenland elites, “That the last right they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.”[3]

We have no margin for error and can no longer afford to allow short term profits to override long-term ecological damage. This is an area where it is easy to be polemical and to some degree we make judgements every day on what degree of pollution is acceptable, and the planetary eco-system can deal with many types of pollution, the smoke from a fire, some CO2 releases, sewage. However, humanity is now exceeding the limits of the natural recycling system in many ways, and in addition the eco-system has no short-term fix for poisons introduced into critical systems like local water sources. At present such toxic pollution is often introduced into the eco-system with no effective calculation of the true cost, the polluter therefore does not have to factor in the total costs of production into its financial calculations. In a study of Alberta’s tar sands oil production researchers found that the oil sands industry substantially increased loadings of toxic “priority pollutants”, such as cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc to the Athabasca River and its tributaries via air and water pathways.[4] This is a debate which is defining the quality of the environment, particularly as lower oil prices have put great pressure on the profitability of non-traditional oil and gas production. In the United States, The New York Times noted in 2015 that hydrocarbon producers opposed new Federal regulation of their industry, fearing that they could raise the cost of fracking, The Independent Petroleum Association of America filed a lawsuit challenging the new US regulations, calling them “a reaction to unsubstantiated concerns”.[5] However, the planetary eco-system is now under such stress that such a profit-driven, rather than substainablity-driven approach is no longer viable.

[1] Lovelock, James – “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth”, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979

[2] Lovelock, James – “The Ages of Gaia”, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, p. 19

[3] Diamond, Jared – “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, Viking, London, 2005, p.276

[4] Kelly, Erin N et al – “Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries”, PNAS 14 September 2010, Vol. 107, No 37, pp. 16178-16183

[5] Davenport, Coral – “New Federal Rules Are Set for Fracking”, The New York Times, 20 March 2015

© Andrew Palmer, 2015

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